River Views

by Malcolm Macdonald, April 18, 2012

The January 26th edition of The Mendocino Beacon ran a story headlined “Fort Bragg ax attacker convicted.” What readers may have missed is that the story was not written by a Beacon reporter or by a staffer at their sister publication the Fort Bragg Advocate-News, not even by someone in the Media News Group chain that owns these and many other so-called small town newspapers. The story was submitted by the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office. The article included wording such as “District Attorney David Eyster on Monday called the jury’s conviction ‘a big win in a difficult gang-related case’,” that implied the DA was responding to a reporter’s question.

Publishing fire calls and police logs has gone on in newspapers for centuries. However, publishing full length submissions from a government office holder about particular cases is another thing. If the editor or publisher of the coastal papers (they are produced in the same cinder block office in Fort Bragg with one editor and one publisher for both publications) deemed the story of the “Fort Bragg ax attacker” an important one then a real live reporter should have covered the trial. Those newspapers do employ a court reporter. Every week the court reporter sits in Ten Mile Court diligently taking notes at the Monday and Tuesday sessions. The problem is that Monday and Tuesday are mostly made up of arraignments, the very first step in criminal court proceedings. In its modern sense arraign means to bring someone before the court to answer to an indictment. In its original Latin form, rationare, the word meant to reason or talk out.

The court reporter for the Beacon and Advocate-News does not cover actual trials. The Media News Group will not pay for that. So what readers of the two Mendocino Coast papers get is something akin to a gossip column of criminal justice.

The gossip column is not completely fair and balanced. As a member of the group Coast Copwatch I have been present in Ten Mile Court when two men, arrested on the same day at the same location, stood accused of identical misdemeanors in the Ten Mile courthouse on the very same day, but only one of those individuals’ names appeared in the following “Court Report” on the pages of the Fort Bragg Advocate-News and Mendocino Beacon.

As a columnist I wrote a single paragraph about this in the days when River Views appeared in the Mendocino Beacon. That paragraph also included: “It is one thing to report the names of people convicted of violating our state’s laws; however, it seems counter to the Constitution to print the names of citizens who are merely being arraigned or are entering pleas of not guilty. Each citizen is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Publishing the names of the accused is doing the government’s business for them.” The paragraph was edited out.

Readers can find out which citizens are appearing in court without purchasing a newspaper, just Google “Mendocino Civil and Criminal Case Index” then click on “calendar” and your local court. You’ll get to see a complete list of who is being dragged before the judge as well as who is suing whom and the names of everyone appearing in court on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Each citizen who is able should attend a court session now and then. It does matter that you don’t let yourself be misled by newspapers that have slid down the slippery slope of printing only the government’s side of legal matters.

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